When Jesus chose his closest confidants, he picked a rather unlikely group. Not only were they not religious scholars, tax collectors like Matthew and revolutionaries like Simon weren't exactly pillars of the local synagogue.
And when we look at the larger circle of people whom Jesus associated with we find prostitutes, drunkards, and more tax collectors—the ancient equivalent of the modern day loan shark.
When you contrast the people who were around Jesus with the people who fill most Western churches, you'll notice a stark difference. Gone are the sinners, criminals, and revolutionaries. Our churches look a lot more Leave it to Beaver and a lot less The Sopranos.
There have certainly always been exceptions to this, but during the second half of the 20th century, the church earned a reputation as a place that pushed away people on the fringe. Only the holy—or more often the hypocritical—were welcome. The good news is that in a lot of churches this is not only changing, it has already changed.
Krista Back is the First Impressions Director at National Community Church (NCC). Her stated reason for having purple hair? "You can't be judged by someone with purple hair." And Kurtis Parks, our Worship Pastor, has tattoos covering his arms because "more often than not, it leads to a conversation about Jesus."
It takes a lot more than tattoos and funky hair to reach people on the fringe, but they are a subtle way to say, "You're welcome here."
Yes, our seats are still filled with a lot of straight-laced middle-class WASPs (that's White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) who grew up in the church and really do fit the mold. In fact, that largely describes me.
But we also count among our community homeless men and women, alcoholics, single moms, felons, and people who don't believe in Jesus. In other words, all of the people who you don't picture as churchgoers are here.
And I know my church isn't the only one. Communities like Ecclesia in Houston and the expansive Celebrate Recovery ministry at Saddleback in California are changing the conversation when it comes to church. And of course, the LA Dream Center/Angelus Temple takes this to a whole other level, as a church that not just welcomes but exists for those on the fringe.
The bad news is that it's probably going to be a while before people who don't fit the mold of a 1950s Baptist churchman feel completely at ease stumbling into the church around the corner, even if that church would love to have them.
This is where small groups can stand in the gap.
Adam Meier started bringing a group of guys from church to play basketball at the DC Youth Services Center when he was working for city councilmember Tommy Wells. I know "Youth Services Center" sounds like the local rec, but the YSC is a euphemistic name for DC's juvenile detention facility. Most of the young men and women there are awaiting trial, although a few are sent back if convicted.
It started with a visit that Adam and Tommy made to another of DC's juvenile detention facilities. Tommy saw the basketball court there and said, "We need to come play ball." So the first group that went and played was from the DC Council and even included a couple of councilmembers.
When we launched Second Saturday Serve—a monthly, no strings attached opportunity our church organizes to serve the city—Adam led a group of guys to play basketball at the YSC. Some of the guys really took an interest and started playing ball there every other Saturday. Now Josh Fisher leads a small group of men that visit the YSC weekly.